Mudrarakshasa, written by Vishakadatta (Translated by R S Pandit) in 6th century CE, is a political thriller set in an interesting period in Indian history. It is the time of Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya, and the Nandas. By this time, in Kusumapura (Patna), the last of the Nanda kings has renounced the world and his kingdom taken over by Chandragupta and Chanakya. Malayaketu, a small vassal king, left Chandragupta’s court after his father was poisoned. Though he fled, Malayaketu has a trump card in Rakshasa, the honest and smart minister. The goal of Chanakya at the beginning of the play is to bring Rakshasa to his camp so that Chandragupta would have an able minister by his side.
The title Mudrarakshasa refers to the signet ring of Rakshasa. It was stolen by Chanakya’s spy. Using that mudra Chanakya forges a letter which sets the wheel of intrigue into motion. After a few back and forth moves, Chanakya is able to brilliantly seed suspicion into the minds of Rakshasa and Malayaketu. The spies of Chanakya spin tales and at some point, Malayaketu is suspicious of Rakshasa’s loyalty. Malayaketu thinks that if Chanakya is gone, then Rakshasa might switch loyalty. Also, though it was Chanakya who killed Malayaketu’s father, the blame was put on Rakshasa. While all this is happening, Rakshasa sees his world falling apart, with his friends disappearing in Chanakya’s web for one mistake he did. He left his family at a friend’s house while he left. That step, along with the loss of his ring, would lead to his fall.
The scenes alternate between Chanakya’s house and Rakshasa’s house with one making a cunning move and the other trying to foresee and counter it. It is like a game of shatranj, but with lives at stake. It creates great drama and suspense. Through dialogue, Vishakadatta exposes the ideals of the characters and to what length they would go to defend their allegiances. Chanakya is focussed on the brilliant and brave Rakshasa — he admires him, though he is in the enemy camp — and wants to get him to the Maurya side. He would do anything to achieve that goal, like forging letters, imprisoning innocent people and threatening to kill them, exiling people, using poison girls and spies. He knows Rakshasa’s weakness for his friends and exploits it to make him helpless and surrender.
Rakshasa is not a simpleton either. He tries his best to murder Chandragupta. On the day, Chandragupta was to enter as the victor to the palace, Rakshasa had placed a shooter and a mahout to assassinate him, but instead of Chandragupta, the assassins get killed. Then Rakshasa tried poisoning Chandragupta, instead, Chanakya made the poisoner drink it. Then a group was made to hide in Chandragupta’s room. Chanakya spotted ants coming from the floor with food and detected the hidden enemies.
The play shows how spies form an important tool in both Chanakya’s and Rakshasa’s arsenal (“They know a thousand languages, they have a thousand eyes, they travel in thousand disguises”). There is a Brahmin, Indusharman, dressed as a Buddhist monk, who gets friendly with the ministers of Rakshasa. Then there is Nipunaka, who walks around carrying a cloth with designs of Yama. His task is to keep an eye on the general population. Jain monk, Jivasiddhi too is a spy and so is Viradhagupta dressed as a snake charmer.
Rakhasa, though defeated, ends on a high note. He becomes the minister of Chandragupta, passing a tough test. He is respected for his ethical stand and keeping his moral fiber in-tact, despite all the odds. Chanakya too ends on a high note. He used deception to trap Rakshasa, not to benefit him, but Chandragupta. He himself retires. The play brings out the contrast between these two ministers. Chanakya is ruthless, but Rakshasa is softer and relenting. Chanakya can plot a deceptive scheme, Rakshasa is more of a soldier.
An interesting aspect of this play — and I have to confess that I have not read many — is that there is no romance at all. In fact, there are no main women characters (there are minor ones like guards and wife of one character). Apparently, Sanskrit dramas have a vidushaka character, which is missing in this one. It is a cut and dry political drama with intrigue and intellectual arguments on duty and loyalty.
PS: There is a scene where the Jain monk Jivasiddhi shows up when Rakshasa is looking for an astrologer. Rakshasa reacts, “That naked monk! What an evil omen.”
PS1: Do you know how Chanakya died? Interestingly, it comes from a Jain source, which is the only source.